Here's Why All's Not Well for India on the Ladakh Front

The Chinese have created new facts on the ground and pushed the Indian political leadership to react in ways that will further disadvantage the Indian military.

Preoccupied by counter terror operations in Kashmir, India’s distracted army was taken by surprise when the Chinese PLA carried out well-planned and deftly-executed multi-prong deep incursions of three to five kilometres across north Sikkim and east Ladakh last month. Starting on May 5, the Chinese not only occupied Indian territory but also audaciously built concrete defences on it. That the Indian Army was surprised by the PLA manoeuvre showed its total obliviousness to the ground reality. Now if there is some “thinning” of Chinese troop deployments, as Indian military officials say, this is at best cold comfort since there has been no dismantling of the structures China erected, and which now represent new facts on the ground.

The world knows that consequent to the ill-handled 2017 Doklam crisis by India, the Western Theatre Command of the PLA – which is tasked for the 3,488 km Line of Actual Control (LAC) – now has at least two group armies, three air force bases, and one rocket force base. With a total of 13 combined armed brigades, support arms, support services, border guards and armed police, the number totals over 200,000 soldiers in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). They have created an excellent military ecosystem and have been conducting realistic combat training. Given the increased forces-in-being threat, the Indian Army should be prepared for similar surprises. Without blaming the intelligence services.

The recent display of PLA power was probably sanctioned by  Central Military Commission vice chairman General Xu Qiliang. Number two to the commander-in-chief, Xi Jinping, Xu, a former PLA Air Force (PLAAF) commander was the architect of the 2015 military reforms and is responsible for interoperability between the PLA and Pakistan military through joint combat exercises between the three services.

File photo from 2019 of General Xu Qiliang, Vice Chairman Central Military Commission (CMC) visiting Pakistan’s GHQ with a high level delegation. Also seen, the then COAS, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Photo: ISPR

The Indian Army should also not be caught napping on the increased threat to the Siachen glacier it has been holding since April 1984 at a huge cost of men and finances. Speaking at a webinar organised by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) on May 15, the army chief General M.M. Naravane, in the context of two-front war, said, “It is a possibility. It is not that it is going to happen every time. We have to be alive to all contingencies which can happen.”

He probably had a localised two-front war in north Ladakh – from Siachen to Sub Sector North (SSN) in mind. His ill-informed predecessor, and now the chief of defence staff, General Bipin Rawat had on October 21, 2019 advised the defence minister Rajnath Singh to open the Siachen area from the base camp to Kumar post for tourism. Announced within weeks of the tectonic development of August 5 2019 – which reconstituted the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories of Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh – this decision would have irked both Pakistan and China. Especially Beijing, whose two successive protests on the creation of the Ladakh UT, which it said changed the status quo, had fallen on deaf ears in New Delhi. The present PLA intrusions are a consequence of that. Plus more, as we shall see.

Localised two-war front a possibility

With the PLA now moving in strength in the Galwan valley (not a disputed area until now), it, along with the Pakistan military, is well poised to hem in the Indian Army on the Siachen glacier from two sides – the Pakistan Army on the west and the PLA on the east. What makes a localised two front war a real possibility is that (a) both partners have achievable political objectives and military aims; (b) they have been doing combined combat training since 2011 in air (the Pakistan Air Force-PLA Air Force’s Shaheen exercises) and on ground (Pakistan Army-PLA Army’s Warrior exercises) since 2013, interestingly, across north Ladakh, which includes Siachen; and (c) have capability, capacity and political will to achieve their objectives.

Also Read: In Talks, China Takes Hard Line, Claims All of Galwan Valley, Chunk of Pangong Tso

Held in August and September (close to border with north Ladakh), the month-long Shaheen-VIII joint exercise was reportedly most advanced. According to PLA commander, Xin Xin,

“The Shaheen series joint exercises started as one-on-one dog fight, but now it has evolved into systematic mock battles featuring more war planes, multiple military branches which include ground forces that deploy missiles and electronic counter-measures.”

Another commentary on this exercise noted that there were two opposing teams: Red team comprising the PLA Air Force, and Blue team constituted of PLAAF and Pakistan Air Force. The scope of such exercise does not require elaboration.

What could be the strategic, political, military and diplomatic objectives of the likely joint combat?

  • The Pakistan Army’s strategic objective for a localised war in north Ladakh could be to provide depth to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC);
  • The political objective could be to make India’s hold over the Kashmir Valley more tenuous;
  • The military objective could be to force the Indian Army out of the Siachen Glacier; and
  • The diplomatic objective could be to draw the international community’s attention to the possibility of a full-scale war between adversaries with nuclear weapons.

China is likely to endorse the above war objectives, as well as its participation with a caveat: the PLA will not use its kinetic war capabilities until attacked by the Indian military.

Map of the Siachen area. Credit: KBK Infographics

What could be a likely joint war plan? In a military pincer, Indian positions on the Saltoro ridge and the Siachen glacier could be outflanked by Pakistan and China. The Pakistan Army could attempt to capture NJ9842 in sub-sector west presently held by India. The PLA, while throwing its weight behind the Pakistan military could (a) sever India’s operational logistics by land and air maintenance to Sub-Sector North (SSN) facing the Chinese in Ladakh, and (b) share its non-kinetic capabilities.

Why Galwan matters

The PLA’s strong objection to  the Indian Army’s attempt to construct a feeder road in the Galwan valley to link up with the 224km long Durbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road as well as the bridge (explained below) should be understood in the context of such a war plan. This construction provided the trigger for the PLA’s present moves across the LAC.

This is also the reason why in the high-level military talks on June 6, the Chinese insisted that their incursions in the Galwan Valley were off the table. Clearly, the importance of the Galwan Valley lies in what it means in relation to other objectives in Ladakh.

The Siachen glacier lies between two mountain spurs of the Karakoram Range: the Saltoro ridge in the west which separates Indian and Pakistani forces fighting for the glacier. And the Sasser ridge which separates the glacier from east Ladakh where the PLA has gradually been shifting the 1993 LAC westwards towards its 1960 claim line closer to the Sasser ridge. This area, called Sub Sector North (SSN), with extreme weather conditions at altitudes of 18,000 feet and lacking adequate infrastructure on the Indian side, is extremely vulnerable to ingress by the PLA as they have roads on their side right up to the LAC.

To the north of SSN lies the famous Karakoram (KK) pass which provides the shortest route from Leh in Ladakh up into China. The PLA has a road from its garrison having a combined-arms battalion (basic tactical unit capable of conducting independent operations) near the KK pass to its post on the pass. From atop Teram Sher Glacier, west of the KK pass, the north and central portions of the Siachen glacier are in full view.

The Daulat Beg Oldi road passes through Galwan. Image: The Wire

Having dug itself into the Galwan valley (hitherto a non-disputed area), the PLA, with a combined arms brigade – backed by artillery and armour elements in the rear – is well positioned to check the Indian Army’s use of the 224km Durbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldie (DBO) road, the easier of the two routes available to reach the SSN. Starting from Tangtse northwards to Darbuk, this route goes along the Shyok River, crossing it at two points — one downstream and the other upstream — to finally reach DBO. In the summer months, between May to October (when the winter stocking for troops is done), this route is unavailable as the Shyok River gets flooded because of the melting glaciers, making crossing it downstream impossible.

During this period, only the other difficult route across the Sasser ridge is available to the troops to reach SSN. Lacking a proper road, it takes Indian troops anything from 18 to 25 days to trudge the treacherous track along Sasoma, Sasser La to Chungtash, Margo and Burtse near Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO). The Indian Army has a vehicle relay service on this route — once troops cross the Sasser La and come to Chungtash they are ferried onwards towards DBO in vehicles. In order to make the Darbuk route to DBO available round the year, the defence minister, Rajnath Singh on 21 October 2019 inaugurated the 430-metre long Colonel Chewang Rinchen Setu (bridge) across the Shyok river. The bridge, while facilitating troops movements to SSN, also reduced the travel time by half. This will be compromised by the PLA’s move and dominance of heights in the Galwan valley. Hence, its refusal to bring Galwan to the discussion table.

With Indian Army reinforcements being difficult to come through, what stops the PLA from helping the Pakistan Army with good observation from Teram Sher Glacier? Aided by the observation provided by the PLA, the Pakistan Army could fire its cruise missiles to both interdict the Indian Army’s logistics lifeline from the base camp to the glacier and on troops’ positions itself.

PLA’s priorities vis a vis Indian Army

Meanwhile, the PLA’s non-kinetic capabilities ensconced in its unique Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) comprising cyber, space, electronic and electromagnetic spectrum management could dominate the electromagnetic spectrum. This would disallow and disrupt Indian Army and Indian Air Force’s communications; command and control; Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), satellites, and Position, Navigation and Timing essential for the firing of cruise missiles. A potent capability, the SSF has been exercising extensively under the Western Theatre Command since 2018. It has done a series of force-on-force exercises and has vastly improved PLA Army and PLAAF joint operations in advanced electromagnetic environments.

I had asked a former director-general military operations (DGMO) before the 2017 Doklam crisis what he thought of collusion between the PLA and the Pakistan military in north Ladakh. According to him, the army had amply war-gamed this and concluded it to be unlikely. The main reason was that China had no political and military objectives in this area and little reason to build up troops close to the LAC. This situation has now changed.

The volatile Kashmir valley after the August 5, 2019 revocation of Article 370 can play havoc with the Indian Army’s lines of communications. What’s more, the PLA forces-in-being would keep the army tied down on protecting the LAC instead of reinforcing numbers in SSN and Siachen. Besides, nothing stops the PLA Special Forces from capturing the Advanced Landing Ground and air-strip at Daulat Beg Oldie. This could be done as part of reaching their 1960 claim line. It needs to be remembered that China and Pakistan are non-status quo nations with a willingness to use military power in support of their foreign and security policies.

What are India’s options now? Since it has little military capability to change things on the ground against the PLA, the two joint secretary level interactions are unlikely to to end the crisis. The meeting between the two general officers (GOC 14 corps, Lt Gen. Harinder Singh and PLA’s Maj. Gen. Liu Lin) held on June 6, which ended with no results to show, is proof of the Indian military’s weak hand at the negotiating table.

Aware that little would be achieved, the Indian Army did what no serious interlocutor does: it announced to the media beforehand its red lines – including the demand for restoration of the status quo ante positions held by both sides as of April 2020. While this was meant to project it as an equal interlocutor at talks, it had the opposite effect. An official told this writer that the PLA agreeing to the meeting (at the last minute) was itself the breakthrough. India would be reluctant to request China to raise the talks’ level to that of national security advisor or chief of defence staff. Given the expansive PLA’s incursions and China’s agenda for discussions, the raised level, unlike previous times, would leave India red-faced.

Chinese aims

What do the Chinese want from diplomatic talks? Two things: Indian adherence to the mutually agreed Wuhan consensus, and revocation of the new constitutional status of Ladakh. Cleverly inbuilt into the second demand is revocation of the status of Jammu and Kashmir as well. After all, one cannot be done without the other.

China is willing to walk half-way on the diplomatic and military fronts. Should India agree, the PLA, in a phased manner, would be willing to withdraw troops as well as its tanks and artillery guns from the rear. Defences and roads made by it would remain, implying that the change on the ground would be irrevocable.

What is the Wuhan consensus?

In April 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi informally met with President Xi Jinping in Wuhan. This was after the 2017 Doklam crisis. Both sides agreed that they would ‘cooperate with each other’ and not be rivals. According to China, India has reneged on that consensus. Their long list citing instances of betrayal includes India’s growing strategic footprint in support of the Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quadrilateral dialogue meant to contain China, and a host of bilateral trade issues where India has acted against the interests of Chinese companies keen on business in India; ostensibly at the behest of the US.

The immediate provocation for China was the August 5, 2019 constitutional and legal change made to the state of Jammu and Kashmir when it was divided into two separate Union Territories: Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh. Within days, China had protested, saying that the creation of the UT of Ladakh has altered the status quo. Unmindful of China’s protests, Union home minister Amit Shah declared in parliament that Aksai Chin (under Chinese occupation) was part of the Ladakh UT. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s explanation given in Beijing that the new constitutional status of Ladakh had not changed things on the ground did not assuage the Chinese leadership.

The reason for this is that China never had a boundary (i.e. well-defined jurisdiction limits) with Ladakh. Right from the time when British India annexed the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1846 till it left the subcontinent, it had failed to persuade China to convert the existing frontier (undefined areas which allows free passage of people, trade and other civilizational matters) into a boundary. As inheritors of the British mantle, India, in its maps of 1950, issued to announce proclamation of the Republic, showed the western sector (Ladakh) as ‘undefined boundary.’

Also Read: Why It Is Imperative That Indians Come to Know What Happened in 1962

In his letter of November 7, 1959, written to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai proposed a boundary settlement where China agreed to de facto accept the McMahon Line (which it did not recognise) in the eastern sector in exchange for India accepting the actual positions held by the two sides in the western sector, read eastern Ladakh. While Nehru rejected the proposal, China called its actual position line as the Claim Line in Ladakh. Consequent to the 1962 war, China, after declaring a unilateral ceasefire, ordered the PLA to withdraw 20km behind their Claim Line – thereby creating an unofficial demilitarised zone. Over time, the Chinese Claim Line was forgotten by both sides.

In 1993, under the agreement of peace and tranquillity, the two sides agreed to call the entire disputed border as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). With this, there were three lines to contend with: the boundary as India believed; the boundary as claimed by China; and the LAC. Indian diplomats did not understand that the LAC, by definition, is a military line which could be tactically shifted by the side with greater power and political will without being called an act of war. So, the LAC, which was to usher in tranquillity became a millstone around the Indian Army’s neck.

Commensurate with the PLA’s improved border management – coupled with the 1998 nuclear tests where China was cited by India as the reason for conducting them – the PLA’s transgressions across the LAC increased. They were emboldened by India’s appeasement policy, which was reflected in the way successive Indian governments explained the transgressions by telling the domestic audience that since the LAC was not an agreed line, these happened both ways. In reality, all transgressions since the creation of the LAC had been done by the PLA, none by the Indian Army. This fact was finally acknowledged by the Ministry of External Affairs in its May 21, 2020 statement which said that the Indian Army was fully aware of the how the LAC ran on the ground and always abides by it.

Impact of Doklam

The threat from the PLA’s comparatively excellent border management got a huge fillip after the 2017 Doklam crisis. With this, two things happened: One, the PLA’s border management threat to India increased exponentially. Unlike earlier, when the PLA’s mobilisation and combat readiness in case of a crisis was estimated to be 15 to 20 days, this warning time available to the Indian Army after Doklam has reduced sharply. With the PLA’s forces-in-being in TAR, the threat has risen exponentially. And, since the PLA has been exercising regularly in TAR, it could turn around its exercising troops to surprise the Indian Army anywhere on the LAC. This is precisely what they did in large numbers, estimated between 10,000 to 15,000 troops, in eastern Ladakh with deep ingress (estimated three to five kms) across the LAC at three points – Demchok, Pangong Tso and Galwan valley. The ingresses, authenticated by satellite imagery, compelled defence minister Rajnath Singh to concede that the “Chinese have come in large numbers”.

With few available options – political, diplomatic and military – and unmindful of the sizeable land grab done by the PLA and the growing threat to Siachen and SSN, the Modi government decided to do what it does best: Adopt a tough posture and build an alternate narrative of victory for domestic consumption. In the middle of the border crisis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a virtual summit with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison raised the level of bilateral relations – giving a fillip to the Quadrilateral Dialogue and the Indo-Pacific strategy, much to Beijing’s dislike. This led to a further hardening of positions between China and India at the diplomatic and military level talks.

At the same time, government officials and government media started spinning yarns of victory in the Himalayas. The most bizarre claim being that since the LAC is a concept and a mythical line, the PLA’s three-to-five-kms occupation of Indian territory was still outside India’s perception of the LAC – i.e. the PLA had not “entered the Indian side of the LAC”. Never mind, the MEA’s recent confession that the army was aware of the LAC’s alignment on the ground. No one bothered to ask the government that if this was indeed the case, what line had the Indian soldiers been holding for 27 years (starting 1993), round the clock, at an average elevation of 15,000 feet, without proper habitat, roads or even pony tracks at some places?

Meanwhile, the government has asserted that the pace of infrastructure development would be hastened. Once the pandemic gets over, 11 special trains would be commissioned to bring thousands of labourers for building operational roads close to the LAC. How will that help? For one, the PLA would only object to infrastructure building in Ladakh, and not on the rest of the LAC. Since India has changed the status quo of Ladakh on its maps, the PLA will object to any status quo change on the ground. So, expect these workers to toil in Arunachal Pradesh. For another, the Algorithm war that the PLA is preparing for (and which the Indian military is oblivious of) would make the Indian soldiers fighting on the frontline meaningless.

While India believes that its strategy of hardened posture would overtime work to it advantage, it would have the opposite effect. To ensure that the PLA gives no more surprises, large numbers of the Indian Army would be committed permanently to policing the LAC. This would include theatre reserves and troops of the 17 Mountain corps. The army’s plans of substituting technology on the LAC in order to relieve troops for training would die a natural death. While the PLA would hone itself for futuristic ‘algorithm war’ – including the use of artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons etc – the Indian Army would be compelled to abandon its military reforms which, are in any case, still geared to the concept of network-centric warfare that China and the US have already gone well beyond.

Between counter-insurgency ops in J&K, political strikes on the Line of Control against Pakistan and policing the LAC, modernisation and reparation for futuristic wars would necessarily get put on the back burner. After all, there is only this much that the forces can do, and that the nation can afford, economically. One can only hope that this does not spur the Pakistan military and the PLA to further adventurism.

Pravin Sawhney is editor, Force newsmagazine and co-author of the book, Dragon On Our Doorstep